The Obama administration’s attempt at peace talks with the Taliban has been fraught with problems. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported on another: Qatar.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has refused to approve the transfer of five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar because the Gulf state is balking at imposing safeguards on their movements, say senior defense officials, casting doubt on U.S. hopes for negotiations to end the Afghan war.
Qatar has balked at U.S. demands that it take steps to ensure the detainees can't leave the country after they are handed over, said the officials, who were briefed on the negotiations.
Qatar has always been a problematic ally. As I previously pointed out, Qatar is a hotbed for terrorist financing. Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and allied groups find it fairly easy to raise funds there. For instance, a leaked December 30, 2009 State Department cable contains a summary of the problem (emphasis added):
Qatar has adopted a largely passive approach to cooperating with the U.S. against terrorist financing. Qatar's overall level of CT cooperation with the U.S. is considered the worst in the region. Al-Qaida, the Taliban, UN-1267 listed LeT, and other terrorist groups exploit Qatar as a fundraising locale. Although Qatar's security services have the capability to deal with direct threats and occasionally have put that capability to use, they have been hesitant to act against known terrorists out of concern for appearing to be aligned with the U.S. and provoking reprisals.
Given this state of affairs, the Taliban five would not necessarily even have to leave Qatar to have an impact on the fight. For example, they could become valuable fundraisers while in country. Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin openly worried about something along these lines during a hearing earlier this year.
Returning to the WSJ piece we learn that the U.S. has “demanded as a precondition that the Taliban denounce their links with al Qaeda.” However, the Taliban sees this demand “at this stage of the talks, as illegitimate.”
Some claim the Taliban and al Qaeda are not really all that close and it should be easy to separate the two. Vice President Joseph Biden has taken this claim still further, insisting that “the Taliban per se is not our enemy.” Yet the Taliban, when asked to foreswear al Qaeda, claims that this demand is “illegitimate.”
The tension between the reality of the fight in Afghanistan – where al Qaeda, the Taliban and related groups form a deadly coalition – and the premise of the Obama administration’s nascent “peace talks” is plain to see.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.